Lisa–the perfectionist–is a stunning, mysterious, and fearless sexual adventurer. She is founder and supreme mistress of The Club–an exclusive island resort where forbidden fantasy meets willing flesh. Elliott is a thrill-seeking photographer who has risked his life in war zones around the world and now seeks the ultimate rush–exploring his darkest sexual self. Join them on a journey to the limits of erotic pleasure and beyond.
I discovered Exit to Eden during a time I wasn’t reading romance. The contrivances, the clichés, the utter predictability of the genre had grown thin. I was ready for a change and all too happy to dive into the world of New Orleans vampires a friend told me about. At the time, the Vampire Chronicles could claim only four titles. Those were read quickly, the supply soon exhausted and I went on to devour Rice’s books on witches, mummies, castrati, and finally racial politics in 1840s New Orleans. Still fiending for Rice’s storytelling, curious about what was labeled as her Erotic Fiction, but unwilling to dive into the deep end of the pool, I tested the waters with Rice’s Anne Rampling work. And there I found, what remain to be, my two favorite Rice books, Belinda and Exit to Eden. Exit to Eden showed me that romance can exist outside of genre constructs. Here are two characters I imagine never gaining acceptance by mainstream romance fans. Lisa runs The Club, a fantasy sex resort catering to the sadomasochistic desires of its patrons. Elliott goes to The Club to serve as a sexual slave, wanting to be immersed in S&M culture. She is the anti-genre heroine: in touch with and in control of her own sexuality, smart, on her own, aware of her beauty, at a point of beautiful crisis. He could almost be a genre hero: he’s successful, a risk taker, daring, adventurous, his own man, the Alpha Male, searching for that elusive something to complete him. But, unlike any romance hero at the time, Elliott’s sexual history included more men than women and he had an overwhelming desire to be dominated. They meet; they fall in love; they live happily ever after. To me, their story has always been a romance.
W: Is this your first brush with Anne Rice? Or, Anne Rampling as the case maybe?
HK: Both, actually. Other than seeing the movie Interview With The Vampire and reading all about Anne Rice and her venture into a very different genre with her newest book, Christ The Lord, this is it. Rice appears to be one of those authors with whom everyone is familiar because her name recognition is so strong, regardless of whether or not you read her books or in her genre.
W: Confession time, I predicted, fairly well, your reactions to my previous backlist favorites. I knew you’d love Slow Heat in Heaven. I had a very strong suspicion that Hummingbird would not be to your tastes. But, how you’ve found Exit to Eden is beyond me. While rereading, my guesses about your reaction vacillated wildly: She’ll love the erotic nature of the story; she’ll say there’s no conflict; she’ll hate the overly internal/character driven plot. Put an end to this for me. What did you think?
HK: My reaction vacillated as wildly as your guesses. As I read, my feelings for, and interest in, Lisa and Elliott’s story changed. At first, I found the storytelling vivid but the story slow and plodding. The conflict lagged and the romance bloomed too early. Lisa’s abrupt redirection of her life as a result of seeing Elliott’s photograph, while romantic, bothered me for the majority of the first half of the book. Balanced against those negatives was Rice’s ability to present a convincing and sensual story – one that pulsed with sexuality thanks to the backdrop of The Club – without lengthy sexual descriptions. She depended on strong writing to set the mood and establish the characters. By the end, I was invested in both the growth of the characters and in seeing how Rice would bring these flawed people together. The fact she did so without apologizing for the people they were before, or the belief systems they held, is a credit to her.
Now, would I read Exit To Eden again? Probably not. But, as an example of erotic literature that connects on an intellectual, rather than purely sexual level, this is a must read.
W: Now time for you to confess. Admit it: you didn’t want to read this book because of the movie that was based on it.
HK: At first I didn’t put together this book and that horrendous movie. Really, there is very little resemblance between the two – which is lucky for you. The good news is that this is one of those cases where one can honestly say the book is better. Of course, if we’re going to start confessing… I saw that awful movie. Twice. And, no, I’m not willing to say anything else about that.
W: Rice is well known for her gothic horror novels about vampires and witches. She’s considered a commercial writer, and at this point in her career, not always critically well received. But, to me, her early work (the beginning of the Vampire Chronicles, Belinda, and Exit to Eden) is magic. Her prose is perfectly lean but never spare, her tone pitch perfect, and her characters a composition of raw emotions. Do you think the erotic nature of Lisa and Elliott’s story overshadows the skill of Rice’s writing?
HK: I would say the opposite is true. Rice’s fluid writing transforms this from a story about S&M clubs and sex to something greater. Really, she is writing about wounded people becoming whole. Her refusal to take the easy road – to have Lisa and Elliott have some sort of epiphany about the lives they led before – is one of the book’s strengths. Neither character changed his or her core and beliefs, though they were tested. They move forward having found what they needed, not at The Club or in the forbidden nature of the sex there, but in each other. Rice conveys all of that within the boundaries of this world, not in spite of it.
W: The emergence of erotic romance has brought Exit to Eden to my mind over and over again. While I love the more spicy romances, I’ve often found them to be simply romances with more sex tacked on vs. stories that are about sex, where sex is integral to the plot. Both Lisa and Elliott are sexual creatures with left of center appetites; take this aspect away from either and their characters would become unrecognizable. The story is set around a fetish sex club; it’s the club and what goes on there that brings Lisa and Elliott together and conversely it’s the club and what goes on there that pulls them apart. How did you see the strong sexual element of this story? Integral to the plot? Or, gratuitous?
HK: Exit To Eden sexual but most of the spicy romances written today are much more explicit. This book isn’t about two people having sex then deciding they may want to live together forever. While the sexual appetites form the center of the book, Rice never resorts to using the characters’ desires as the easy and only way to propel the story forward. The book really is about these people and their needs, separate from sex. The Club, what it represents and what it provides to both Lisa and Elliott in terms of security and wish fulfillment, is absolutely integral to the plot. These two people can’t move forward, can’t come together, until they deal with who they are both inside and outside The Club.
W: The Club, set on a Caribbean island, seems to be a law unto itself. It’s designed as a clean well-lighted place to act out unmentionable fantasies. With each read of Exit to Eden, I buy into the mythology Rice creates. I love the idea of a jewel of an island, winking in the tropical sun where every body is perfect and beautiful and willing and no one gets hurts. Did Rice force you to suspend your disbelief? Could The Club exist?
HK: I believe it can and probably does. That’s all I’m saying on that…
W: Rice takes great—and not always subtle—pains to bring Lisa and Elliott together. She slowly builds each character, drawing out who they are and showing the reader where and how one will complete the other. Did you see the set up as overly long or necessary for the emotional gravity that followed?
HK: This aspect of the story dragged for me. The entire conflict centered on overcoming these internal struggles, which would have been fine so long as there was consistent forward movement. Many times, the push and pull between them ran in circles. Part of the problem for me was the near spontaneous love connection between them. With that as the basis, the drawn-out coming together didn’t quite make sense. The two aspects of the story seemed in conflict.
W: Lisa’s a heroine brave enough to set out on her own path, even if she must carve it out along the way too. She believes something might be broken inside of her because she’s never found anything consenting people do together as wrong. It’s all very innocent to her. Did you like her?
HK: While I found her mixture of vulnerability and strength compelling and believable, I had trouble connecting with her for most of the book. It was almost as if Rice created Lisa with this hard and decisive outside, then clued the reader in too early to the contrasting feelings inside of her. Her doubts, boredom, confusion and dissatisfaction, while all workable, kick in from the beginning, almost before the reader gets a chance to understand who she is at that moment before she starts changing. That metamorphosis then takes the entire balance of the book to occur. This goes back to my issue with Lisa’s immediate attraction to Elliott. Despite who she was and all she accomplished, she, almost without explanation, questioned everything she believed in after only a brief meeting with Elliott – actually, after only seeing his picture in a file. Again, the idea of seeing a photograph and changing your entire life to be with the subject of that photograph is a romantic notion, but the abrupt change followed by a long inner struggle throughout the remainder of the book kept Lisa somewhat vague, and somewhat weak, in my mind.
W: Elliott is one of my favorite heroes. Ever. Definitely top five. He wants to be sexually mastered and subjugated by men, but the idea of his sexual master being a woman terrifies him. That makes his surrender to Lisa all the more sweet and beautiful. Did you like him?
HK: Elliott had many of the characteristics I find appealing in a hero. He’s strong, smart, beautiful and internally conflicted. He is searching for something to complete him, to fill the void, but is oblivious to what he needs. He faces his fears straight on but doesn’t really understand the basis of those fears. Rice’s ability to draw out his internal pain and confusion made him full and real. When Elliott the self-assured man reappears, he is as believable as he is lovable. Knowing he could be weak – could allow himself to be weak – and then be so commanding, well, he’s on my list of favorites too.
W: Lisa and Elliott fall in love within days of meeting (something you and I are forever condemning romance novels for). I’ve always found this completely believable for this couple because of the depth of emotion they posses as characters, and the way in which Rice writes their time together in New Orleans as being out of control, manic and frenzied. Did the too-soon factor bother you here?
HK: Actually, I would say Lisa fell in love (but didn’t recognize it, of course) before ever meeting Elliott. This aspect of the book didn’t work for me. This instant devotion to the point of breaking all her rules for him, seemed out of character. Had the change occurred later, both the beginning of the story and Lisa’s character likely would have flowed better for me. I understand her questioning starts before Elliott, but the intersection of the two ideas was jumbled for me.
For some reason Elliott’s attraction to Lisa struck me as more believable than Lisa’s transformation for Elliott. We know from the beginning that Elliott is looking for something. That he is on a quest. His attraction to Lisa starts as physical. The leap to love verbally happens much earlier for him than for her, but his start to finish flowed better for me.
W: In all her works, Rice plays with and pushes the boundaries of sexual and gender politics. In part, Elliott loves Lisa because to him, she transcends being a woman. He often likens her to a man, in the way she kisses, holds conversations and approaches sex. I’ve always interpreted this as Rice saying: men are the ideal, what we should aspire to. That subtext, here and elsewhere in the Rice canon, has always offended me. Did you see this as well? Or, something similar?
HK: Not having read Rice before, I don’t know if this is a thread in her work or not. In the context of this book, I thought it was more of a homoerotic issue – that Elliott loved men and women. He didn’t distinguish between them, except to feel more comfortable and in charge around men. What he saw in Lisa and loved in her were her strengths (interpret as male traits) and softness (interpret as female traits). Elliott not only praises the male-like way Lisa kisses, but also the soft flow of her hair and gentle curves of her body. That suggested to me that he only found love when he found a woman who embodied what he viewed as the best of both sexes.
W: Girl meets boy. Girl and boy fall in love. Girl loses boy. Girl wins boy back. But, is Exit to Eden a romance?
HK: Absolutely. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl banter, make love, challenge each other, move past each other, then find their way back. That’s pure romance. What colors the romance aspects of this book is the background of The Club and the way in which these two people meet. But, at heart, I still believe this book is about two desperate people finding their way to each other against seemingly insurmountable odds. Hard to imagine anything more romantic than that.